Caris LeVert & Sean Marks
Caris LeVert & Sean Marks

And Now, Hyper-Tanking

The Brooklyn Nets’ most important game of the year will come against the Washington Wizards. Obviously, it will not be a playoff contest. Even for a franchise who willingly parked itself in purgatory, that’s a more depressing outcome than anyone could have envisioned. You don’t need yet another Nets article to tell you how it’s “all about next year” for them, but this already tantalizing waiting period has transformed into the longest season, both literally and existentially, imaginable. The increasingly faint light peeks through the end of a Sisyphean tunnel. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving sharing the court for Brooklyn is an aroma from a freshly-cooked steak seeping into a caged dog’s nose. Fans and media are running out of things to say. The team itself is running out of bodies.

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And yet, each passing day draws us closer to the actualization of the Orlando Bubble. Brooklyn is set to roster 4, maybe 4 and a half bona fide NBA talents. That figure does not, and should not, include Jamal Crawford or Michael Beasley, both of whom recently signed up for mildly entertaining, extremely insignificant guest roles. Fitting, as insignificant entertainment sums up the ethos of this Nets season. (Shams Charania did report that the duo has a chance to “make an impression for the 20-21 roster”. That’s too much to think about for now.)

The Washington Wizards will, at 24-40, also be taking part in the 2020 Bubble. Along with the Suns, the NBA invited the Wiz to play the role of the “who-invited-him?” party guest. They sat six games behind mostly-intact Nets and Magic teams. Washington figured to get in and out of the Bubble in eight games, salvaging some TV revenue and whatnot. But as the Nets struggles have turned to fielding a merely competitive roster, there has to be an inkling of hope, or fear, for Washington to cut that standings deficit to 4, which would trigger a play-in battle for the 8 seed.

Yes, even getting to that scenario, where the Nets would be given two tries to win one game, still isn’t likely. Washington is missing star Bradley Beal, and perhaps their second best player in Davis Bertans. But everyone knows the allure of a lottery pick is far more enticing than suffering a humiliating sweep by a contender in the first round. How far are the Nets willing to go to prove that? Will Washington even afford them the opportunity? When the two teams play on August 2nd, we might get some answers.

The Situation

The Nets already own the 76ers’ first-round pick this year, which looks more promising than originally expected. Philly isn’t sniffing the top 3-seed many predicted for them at the beginning of the year. Their pick could feasibly rise to as high as #17 this year, which would be far more enticing for the Nets to either trade or use than the upper-20’s pick they might have been expecting. Maybe that alone discourages a total tank job from Sean Marks & co.

In the Allen Crabbe salary dump of 2019, the Nets also gave up this year’s first round pick to Atlanta. Teams, especially ones with high aspirations, often attach the fruity scent of a draft pick to whatever dumpster contract they are offloading. To protect themselves, they’ll often attach lottery protections to it, as the Nets did, incase plans get horribly derailed. Billy King earned his bogeyman reputation among Brooklyn fans in part for disregarding most protections altogether. (In trading a pick for Portland’s Gerald Wallace in 2012, Billy King only attached a top-3 protection to it. Why? Because, in his words, the Nets viewed 2012 as just a “three-player draft”. The Blazers would select Damian Lillard with the sixth pick.)

For most of the year, it was unfathomable Brooklyn may miss the playoffs. They rostered the best point guard in the East, and even after Kyrie went down, had more than enough depth to win more than a handful of games. Brooklyn and Orlando would fight to avoid certain destruction at the hands of Milwaukee as the eighth seed. They simply had too much talent and ground on the Wizards to stoop to the ninth seed. And, for that matter too much pride. Facing Toronto would have been a steep hill to climb for a healthy Nets team, not a predestined defeat. Now, Washington just needs to gain a manageable 2 games on Brooklyn over 8 games, rather than 7 in 18.

If that occurs, Washington would need to go 2-0 vs. Brooklyn in play-in games to limp into the playoffs. Brooklyn would need just a lone victory to advance. But in the absence of that, the Nets would be gifted their very own lottery pick. The question is not whether they should pull this off, it’s whether they could. I’ve touched on the absence of Bradley Beal and Bertans already, which is to say the Wizards could be as horrendous as the Nets. However, because the Wizards have been playing without much NBA talent most of the year, it feels like an unfair comparison. Or, at least, proven NBA talent. Washington is chock-full of players who might still be in the league two years from now. In an attempt to decrease the talent gap, they play wonderfully fast and shoot a ton of threes.

And I’d be remiss not to mention that the Nets don’t quite have full control of their destiny. Sure, Brooklyn’s pick materializes out of thin air if they miss the playoffs, and Washington is holding onto their draft pick either way. But having even the slightest chance to crawl up the board beats being stuck in the 15th slot. Especially with this year’s chaotic, unfamiliar draft process. The Wizards may do everything in their power to avoid the playoffs.

The Schedule

Because of how blatantly terrible the Nets will have to play so as to not fall into wins, this all comes down to Brooklyn vs. Washington on August 2nd. It will be each team’s second game. Provided Washington wins, they’ll have just one more game to gain on Brooklyn to force a play-in. The road to a lottery pick becomes easier to navigate. If Brooklyn wins, Washington suddenly has 3 games to make up in 7. At that point, Washington may just resign themselves to completing an easy, innocuous tank job. But if these teams wake up August 3rd, and one measly game is the barrier to a play-in series, there will be some tough decisions to make.

Washington’s first game is against fellow party pooper, the Phoenix Suns. With the disclaimer that any Bubbly game could yield any result in the Bubble, due to any one of many unusual circumstances, it’s a winnable game for Washington. Phoenix will be without Kelly Oubre, but expect to enter the Bubble with a near-full complement of players. A Wizards victory could go a long way towards the Nets tanking, and may even affect how Brooklyn plays against them on August 2nd.

Washington has played a total of six games without Beal or Bertans. Somehow, they beat Miami, Denver, and Boston in those contests. And per NBC Sports’ Tom Habertstroh, the Bertans/Beal-less Wizards have outscored opponents by 11 points in 479 total minutes. Washington has seamlessly shuffled players in and out of the lineup all season, maintaining a uniform style of play. For as bad as they are, they just need a hot shooting night to win a ballgame. They have some head-scratchingly impressive wins for a supposed basement-level team. Ish Smith would be the best point guard on Brooklyn’s roster today. He had a nice little pick and roll relationship with Thomas Bryant too, who will also partake in the Bubble. A win here and there wouldn’t be surprising, and it might be all they need to force a play-in scenario.

After getting Phoenix and Brooklyn to start, Washington will face four straight opponents with playoff seeding on the line, with only the Pelicans on the outside looking in. Four matchups that the Wizards will be lucky to go 1-3 in. However, they end their schedule with Milwaukee and Boston, two teams that are likely to be locked into playoff seeding by that point. (Milwaukee will certainly be locked into the top seed; Boston has a small but real chance at falling or rising out of the 3 hole.) Milwaukee’s bench is better than Washington’s starters, yes, but with nothing to play for, could represent a winnable game for the Wiz, provided they actually want to do so.

Brooklyn faces a similar situation, starting out with Orlando and Washington, before facing four straight opponents battling for playoff seeding. Of the four, only Sacramento is a current non-playoff team. The Nets end with Orlando and Portland. Orlando, in a scenario where the Nets have committed to the tank, would be locked into the seventh seed. Portland, meanwhile, may have their entire season on the line, or not a care in the world. As it’d be their final regular season contest, there’s no in-between.

The Nets rotation will consist of four regulars: Caris LeVert, Garrett Temple, Joe Harris, and Jarrett Allen. Temple likely comes off the bench unless Jacque Vaughn opts to go super small and start him at the 4. Chris Chiozza should get the starting nod at point. All of which is to say, the Nets will be playing with a maximum of four trusted players at a time, but more often less than that. Jamal Crawford and Michael Beasley might play even less defense than their reputations suggest. Rodions Kurucs has looked serviceable at times, but only when buoyed by other, better, players. Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot is in the same boat. Dzanan Musa is not. Accounting for a loss to Washington, the Nets probably have to go 0-7, or maybe 1-6, to sink into a play-in series. It’s not too far-fetched, even amidst Bubble Mania.

The 2018-19 Nets started out horrendously; they went 8-18 in their first 26 games, which included a horrific Caris LeVert leg rearrangement. The whispers to #TankForZion grew into murmurs just as the Nets got hot and crept into the 6th seed by season’s end. They were never out of a game. It became a part of NBA zeitgeist that without that display, the Nets don’t get Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Each star has praised that winning culture as a main appeal of playing for Brooklyn.

The 2019-20 squad has travelled on a different plane altogether. Even in the midst of a waiting year, we were seeing which pieces could best compliment The Stars. Kyrie Irving was still Kyrie Irving, too, and the Nets would have been a first-round matchup anybody but the Bucks would care about avoiding. Even when Kyrie went down, Brooklyn had some really positive stretches of basketball. Now, the waiting is enough. It’s time to move past this cursed season. By inviting Washington to the Bubble, though, the NBA might have tossed Brooklyn a big ol’ juicy bone in the form of a lottery pick. It would be the saving grace of a season that has long overstayed its welcome, another chip at the offseason table where Sean Marks is gearing up to go all-in. We’re about to see just how hard Brooklyn is willing to work to get it.